Understanding consumer trends for WEEE

Written by: Mark Burrows-Smith | Published:
Image credit: Adobe Stock

Last month, the WEEE Forum made a call for the next European Commission to make quality standards for WEEE treatment legally binding.

Despite the UK’s exit from the European Union, this could mean great things for its current dwindling WEEE collection rates.

In 2017, the collection targets for waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) were missed by 16%, and it seems likely that the targets for 2018 will also be missed. While there are many viewpoints on why – a drop in new equipment purchases and a greater amount of WEEE going down unreported flows – it’s clear that a detailed analysis of the amount and fate of WEEE is required to inform future target metrics for WEEE collection.

To build a clearer picture of what people do with their old devices and electricals, REPIC has commissioned annual consumer surveys since 2015 to explore consumer attitudes to recycling.

The findings of these surveys provide useful intelligence on changing consumer recycling behaviours and the different motivations between different demographics, varying residence times for products, and the impact of these factors on ownership and end-of-use behaviour.

So how have behaviours changed over time, which factors influence EEE recycling and why is consumer feedback essential to understanding the lifecycle of products?

Using consumer insights

Consumer insights are key to understanding the channels where the ‘hand-on’ of EEE is occurring after its first use. This intelligence may help to further inform target setting based on new EEE sales – demonstrating that an item sold does not equal one item recycled. Importantly, these surveys highlight the need for better data collection on both EEE and WEEE flows outside of the obligated WEEE entering the UK system.

The findings can also help the e-waste sector identify where improved information and education must be offered to consumers to encourage greater WEEE recycling. Understanding consumer attitudes towards different electrical products, and the varying lifecycles of individual items, can help the industry in providing more consistent, timely and effective information.

Factors influencing behaviour

Across the results of our surveys, what has been most noticeable is the wide range of different routes for used EEE, which are influenced not only by age group, ease of recycling/reuse and personal attitudes, but also by the type of device or appliance.

Our 2018 survey revealed a significant shift in the attitudes of younger people towards WEEE. In 2015, 36% of 16- to 24-year-olds stated that they put their old and broken products in the bin, but this fell dramatically to 7% in 2018.

Another interesting finding is that the quality and condition of an item is the most important factor for 37% of people when deciding what to do with old electricals. UK homeowners aged between 16 and 29 are less likely than those over 60 years of age to recycle electrical items that are either broken or in good working order, preferring instead to sell them online.

This apparently growing second-hand flow of products is worth further exploration, as it could help explain why the sale of a new product does not always result in an old product appearing in the UK system.

Such changes may be driven by the increasing value of electrical items. Different perceptions of ‘condition’ between generations also appears to influence whether items are resold, donated or recycled. Estimating the current value of their outdated or broken EEE items at around £700-800, 16- to 29-year-olds consider their worth at over £100 more than the 30-44 age group, and over £600 more than those aged 60 years and above.

Different streams for different devices

Looking at different devices, the most popular items to sell among those aged between 16 and 29 are televisions (41%), followed by iPads and Kindles (34%). eBay, Gumtree and Facebook ‘buy and sell’ groups were the favoured online channels for resale of unwanted electrical items in good working order.

The inherent value in mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, paired with the speed at which people seek replacements or upgrades, appears to be influencing growth in their second-hand use. Deloitte Global reported that the market for second-hand smartphones outperforms the overall market by four to five times– in 2016 alone, 120 million used smartphoneswere sold and traded by consumers around the world.

Responses in our 2018 survey highlighted the growing status of the second-hand market for smartphones – with a third of people giving them away to friends and family and 30% selling them online. Interestingly, while younger people are equally as likely to sell smartphones as to give them to a friend or family, older people are more inclined to pass them on. These findings illustrate the challenges – at least for hi-tech products – of setting collection targets based on what was put on the market in the past three years.

Resale market impact

There are many routes for unwanted electricals, whether they are donated to charity shops, sold at car boot sales or passed between family members. However, the ease of buying and selling online and the growth of resale platforms over the past 10 years have created an additional flow. The resale market has also been fuelled by the fast pace of development in technology, which is leading to working products that may have relatively high value being passed on by their first user well before the end of their working life.

Trading up for new “tech” and selling last year’s model is becoming the norm, and there are growing numbers of traders buying and selling second-hand items. This means electrical items can be traded through several owners before finally being discarded at the end of the product’s working life.

While finding a legitimate second, third or multiple life flow for unwanted electrical items should be encouraged, the amount of products going down this route remains unreported.

The challenge is therefore for the industry to better quantify what happens to products on their journey through to end-of-life stage. How long does it take for them to enter the waste stream? At which point, does used EEE become waste? What is the ‘tipping point’ when it is no longer sustainable to continue to use electrical products based on factors such as energy and resource usage?

What’s influencing consumers?

Alongside the growing value of second-hand goods and the impact of their value on the resale market, data security can be a key consideration in the decision to recycle – or not.

In fact, fears around data security have been cited consistently in our consumer surveys across the years. In 2016, 12% of people said data security was stopping them from recycling old devices, and 16% of people in 2017 cited personal data as a reason they hadn’t recycled their old electrical items.

In our latest survey, however, this worry appears to be waning – with only 9% of consumers stating that the amount of personal data on electrical devices would influence what they do with them at end of life. This shift could be attributed to the monetary value of used electrical goods outweighing privacy concerns.

Yet data security isn’t the only issue contributing to the hoarding of electrical items. Another recurring theme across our commissioned consumer surveys is general confusion about which items are recyclable, where they can be recycled and the desire for more information around recycling.

One of the more concerning historic statistics is from our 2015 survey, where over a third of respondents didn’t know you could recycle a cooker (33%), toaster (34%), phone (34%) or tumble dryer (37%). While this confusion appears to be dropping – 28% of respondents in 2016 claimed they didn’t know they could recycle WEEE versus 17% in 2017 – it’s clear that more can be done to empower consumers to ‘do the right thing’.

What the survey does tell us is that there is much we still don’t know about the flow of EEE through its lifecycle. Future research should focus on understanding residence time for products and the impact on when EEE becomes WEEE and is put out for recycling. We do know that it isn’t a one in, one out system, and further analysis on the fate of WEEE is required.

Looking forward, it is encouraging to see that the WEEE Fund is calling for proposals to help deliver greater insights on WEEE flows, which will provide comprehensive and useful data to produce a robust picture of the WEEE available in the UK for collection and recycling.

This research is a step in the right direction – helping guide future target-setting, and providing focus for collecting WEEE or gathering more data to support improved reporting.

Mark Burrows-Smith is CEO of REPIC

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